By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday , March 4, 2000 ; A11
BOGOTA, Colombia, March, 3 –– U.N. investigators have concluded that
the government of President Andres Pastrana has
failed to take adequate steps to protect human rights in Colombia and that civilians increasingly fall victim to massacres,
disappearances, kidnappings and other abuses arising from the country's long-running guerrilla war.
A 37-page report by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human
Rights here laying out the findings is to be made
public at the end of the month. Coming on the heels of two other recent reports--by New York-based Human Rights Watch
and the U.S. State Department--it adds to an increasingly detailed picture of brutality against Colombian civilians and of ties
between army units and right-wing paramilitary groups held responsible for a number of atrocities.
The issue of human rights in Colombia weighs heavily as President Clinton
seeks congressional approval of a two-year, $1.6
billion aid package, the bulk of which is aimed at military training, equipment and intelligence-gathering. The administration has
tried to assure wary lawmakers that Pastrana is committed to improving human rights and has been working to sever links
between the army and the illegal paramilitary groups. The assistance is vital, officials in Washington add, to help stanch the flow
of cocaine and heroin into the United States.
The new U.N. report strongly criticizes the 18-month-old Pastrana administration
for its overall response to Colombia's human
rights crisis. It also harshly rebukes paramilitary militias and their Marxist rebel enemies and says that little has changed since
previous governments in dealing with such problems as impunity within security forces, displaced people and the weakness of
public institutions that investigate and prosecute human rights violations.
"Human rights have not been sufficiently treated as a priority by the
government," the report says. "At the same time, neither
have international recommendations."
The U.N. agency also contended that the 37-year-old civil conflict,
in which more than 35,000 people have been killed in the
last decade alone, has reached a level of "unrestrained human degradation that [recently] became more apparent . . . and merits
unequivocal moral repudiation."
In August, the Pastrana government released its Policy on the Promotion,
Guaranteeing and Respect for Human Rights, a broad
agenda that promised action in a number of priority areas in accordance with international humanitarian law. The initiatives
included commitments to fight paramilitary groups and leftist insurgents until a peace settlement is negotiated, increase vigilance
against kidnappings, create an "early warning system" for state forces to prevent massacres and provide greater assistance to
those displaced by the conflict. The policy also included a legislative agenda to eliminate courts with anonymous judges and
create a specialized justice system to prosecute human rights violators.
While calling the human rights policy a "valuable initiative," the U.N.
report states that little has come of it, saying: "These
objectives must be translated into actions and coherent . . . decisions that are respected and applied by all government
Describing it as a "serious setback," the report disapprovingly refers
to Pastrana's unexpected veto in January of a bill that
would have made forced disappearance and genocide criminal acts. After initially supporting its passage, the president shifted
course, largely because the armed forces complained that such a law would allow soldiers to be prosecuted in civilian courts for
killing guerrillas in combat.
The report also notes that the government has created numerous committees
to oversee and evaluate probes into human rights
violations, but they have been convened infrequently.
Another paramount issue, the U.N. report says, is the government's failure
to implement any real early warning system for
communities that are at risk of incursions by paramilitary squads or rebel units. The report contended that this shortcoming
underscores how the state continues to fall short in protecting vulnerable civilians as well as state human rights investigators.
The report also noted an alarming increase in massacres, many by paramilitary
groups. From the beginning of January 1999 to
Dec. 21, 1999, 402 massacres were reported, a 50 percent increase over the year before.
Vice President Gustavo Bell, who oversees human rights for the Pastrana
administration, was unavailable for comment, as were
other government officials. But Bell recently said his government has never denied residual ties between paramilitary groups and
individuals in the armed forces, and that it has moved to break those ties and punish military people involved with the illegal
forces. Administration officials also have pointed to other progress in human rights, including the dismissal of 15 senior military
officials for alleged ties to paramilitary groups.
U.N. representatives here declined to comment on the report.
As for the guerrillas, the report noted that they have continued their
campaign of terror, blowing up state infrastructure, leveling
towns and kidnapping and killing large numbers of people.